Virtual reality is future of NFL scouting combine and here's what it looks like

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Moms push strollers, guys jog along sidewalks and tucked behind a couple of classic cars is a small house where the future of the NFL scouting combine might be hatching.

"We're in a freaking townhome," says Derek Belch, 30, the former Stanford graduate assistant coach who now has the attention of several NFL teams. He is surrounded by a gaggle of co-workers, some sitting on stairs, some at desks. There's a whiteboard with "Combine" scrawled on it, though that gets erased after a reporter enters.

He is intense in the way a lot of coaches are: eye contact, rapid patter, clear and succinct thoughts. But he's no longer a coach. He is a businessman, and he is standing next to the technology that a lot of pro quarterbacks are going to be made familiar with over the next months and years.

"This is not a video game," he says.

The technology is a virtual reality system made by his company, STRIVR Labs, and Belch says it will be used this week at the combine by NFL teams to test how quarterbacks read defenses. "That will happen," he says. Belch has agreements with the Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Arizona Cardinals, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and New Orleans Saints, and he expects to recruit more teams into the fold in the days ahead.

"On this you can tell," Belch says, "if they're not looking in the right spot, you'll know right away."

Virtual reality is finding traction in this area and elsewhere, as Facebook recently called it "the next major computing platform." But Belch is not out to compete with the titans of Silicon Valley. He wants to own the niche he has created, in football.

Belch is happy to demonstrate the product, handing over the oversized contraption – they look like sinister ski goggles – and firing up the monitor next to it. No less than NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has tried this, and it's a trip. The user is immersed into a football field environment, standing behind the Stanford offensive line and looking out at 11 defenders ready to attack. There's grass below, sky above and running backs behind. A cadence is shouted from what feels like inches away, and it's quarterback Kevin Hogan.

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"It would help my protection calls," says Hogan, who is at the combine this week. "It would help me process it more quickly. I would see our scout team in the exact same coverage and blitz and it would allow you to pick apart the defense."

This makes it different than regular all-22 game film, in that a coach or evaluator can watch a passer's perspective from the outside. The coach sees where the quarterback looks, so if the quarterback can't find the middle linebacker, it's clear immediately.

Measuring QB talent like last year's Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston could enter a new era. (AP)
Measuring QB talent like last year's Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston could enter a new era. (AP)

(It might also help some coaches look at their own systems with fresh eyes. Belch says he has had quarterbacks tell him, "I can't stand it when a coach says, 'How can you not see that?!' They don't know what I'm looking at.")

STRIVR could help solve a problem that's plagued the combine and the entire predraft process for a long time: How can you test a quarterback's mind?

"Measurables" are one thing, but for every Joe Flacco there's a Jeff George. Some of the most colossal draft blunders have been rendered painfully clear when a passer gets into camp and he's overwhelmed by a system and his physical talent suddenly doesn't mean much. Virtual reality is not a guaranteed answer for that, but it could be a start.

"It's a great simulation of the actual game and how little time you have to make decisions," Hogan says.

Belch had the idea when he took a virtual reality class as a student at Stanford in 2005. (He was an undergrad from '03 to '07, and he kicked the game-winning PAT in Stanford's famous upset of USC in '07.) The technology was more primitive then, but still he did his masters thesis on how to use "VR" to train football players. After getting his MBA at USC, he returned to take a position on David Shaw's coaching staff. He founded STRIVR in January of 2015, and it wasn't long before the coach let him go, telling him he should spend all his time developing the company. (Shaw is now an investor in STRIVR.)

Belch hasn't strayed far, though. There's a STRIVR system in the football office, with its own room, and Hogan could be found in there often during his time recovering from an ankle injury early last season. When he was healthy, he used it before kickoffs on game days.

"I would get the headset on and get 20 reps of a play," he says. "I'd see all the blitzes and coverages."

This is another possible advantage for draft picks; they can learn the offense even if they're not playing. Hogan says if he is drafted by a team without VR, he'll lobby to get the system into the team facility.

There's certainly a limit to what the technology can do, as there's no real substitute for game experience. Belch doesn't imagine VR replacing anything, even for fans. But he is already transformed a "cheesy" idea into a football reality for a few pro teams, and he wants to win over the rest this year. Maybe more VR work could turn into a player safety benefit as well, if the need for on-field practice is even slightly lessened.

For now, Belch is working on moving into an office so he doesn't have to work in a townhome. He is also hoping to work with another group within the football community that could always use some reps.

Referees.

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